The shuffle is probably the most important rhythm in blues. Almost everyone knows how to play the classic two string shuffle used by everyone from Robert Johnson to ACDC. But when you dig a bit deeper into the blues, it’s the subtle variations in the rhythms that keeps things interesting and makes people want to move to the music.
Boogie piano is a great source of ideas for blues rhythm guitar parts. The following example is a typical boogie piano left hand part. These kinds of rhythm parts work best with the heel of the right hand lightly damping the strings near the bridge. Learn the pattern shown here for an A or A7 chord and then apply it to the chord changes for a 12 bar blues in A. If you’re not sure of which chords to use, follow the pattern given in example 3.
Ex1 (include swing 8th notes symbol)
Here’s a variation combining the boogie pattern with some extra notes on the 4th string.
Notation: Shuffle variation 1
Ex2 (include swing 8th notes symbol)
Now try this variation which follows the full 12 bar blues pattern. Notice that after the first bar, there is a rest on the first beat of every bar. This gives the whole thing some forward momentum. Because there are no open strings in this rhythm part, it can be played in any key by simply moving the whole thing up or down the 6th string. For example, to play a blues in G, you simply start the pattern at the 3rd fret. For a blues in C, you move the pattern up to the 8th fret, etc.
Notation: Shuffle variation 2
Ex3 (include swing 8th notes symbol)
The most important thing with rhythm guitar playing is to get your timing so rock solid that you can relax and just go with the feel. Practice these parts with a drum machine playing a shuffle beat at a medium slow tempo. When this becomes easy, gradually speed it up until you can play it as fast as possible without losing your timing. Only increase the tempo when you can do it perfectly many times in a row. If you do this with all your rhythm parts, within a few months you’ll feel like you’ve got much more freedom to express yourself and interact with the band when playing live.
Notation: Shuffle variation 3